Hours before Andy Murray opens his 2013 US Open title defense campaign, there seems to be an unusual — but welcome — air of tranquility surrounding him, or more accurately, surrounding his critics, supporters, and tennis pundits in general. Sure, there is no escaping the clichéd narrative of “defending champion pressure,” as it seemed to become the de facto question mark once the media ran out of reasons to doubt the Brit, but that almost seems like a compliment when compared to years of harsh assessments, inaccurate labels, and false predictions of a gloomy future following every loss. In the span of twelve months, Murray went from everyone’s obligatory choice on a “best player never to win a Slam” shortlist, to the heaven-sent savior of British tennis and a multiple Grand Slam champion.
For years, Murray was impatiently crucified for every high profile loss, every shocking defeat, and yes, even every Masters 1000 event tournament win because “if only he can do that in Majors.” At times, he was given a few deserved passes due to competing in an era where three of the greatest ever to play the game happen to dominate, but he was ultimately a victim of his own success: He had proven he could beat them on more than one occasion, but had yet to do so when it mattered most. Of course, in an ever fickle tennis world, failing to string together two consecutive wins over Nadal and Federer in your first ever Major semifinal (and final) appearance, losing to Novak Djokovic on his beloved Australian Open turf, and succumbing to the Swiss master on the Centre Court of Wimbledon dubiously brings your mental toughness into question.
If the general consensus was to be believed, every Slam was Murray’s last chance to win a Major, and every Grand Slam final loss somehow meant his chances of finally snatching one were decreasing, despite the fact that he was continuously putting himself in a position to do so. Murray’s years of unfair media treatment were largely a result of him not winning a Slam as early as most predicted. Typically, he was quick to be put on a pedestal only to be shot down once he didn’t immediately meet the needlessly inflated expectations.
In hindsight, Murray’s career has been far from unusual. In fact, its evolution makes sense, once one looks at the tennis aspect of his game, what he lacked, what he excelled at, and what he has managed to improve. If experts simply distanced themselves from the fanfare and unreasonable demands of immediate glory, the reasons behind Murray’s “failings” were fairly evident, especially once contrasted with his subsequent success in winning Grand Slams.
Murray was long chastised for his inability to play aggressively in key matches or moments, but this was hardly a mental block that he was somehow unable to overcome, or an elusive strategy he had yet to comprehend. From a pure tennis perspective, Murray’s forehand was letting him down against the game’s elite. That is not to suggest that he had never approached a match the wrong way, implemented an ill-advised strategy, or remained too content to stay within his comfort zone. In fact, those factors definitely contributed to many of his defeats. Likewise, while he was never nearly as shaky between the ears as many would have you believe, the Scot didn’t always have the most exemplary attitude facing adversity (a semifinal match with Nadal at the 2011 US Open particularly stands out), and he was obviously nervous in his first ever Grand Slam final appearance against Federer.
However, for the bulk of his career, Murray’s forehand was what was stopping him from employing the aggression many urged him to, while the improvement he later made to that very shot (helped immensely by the partnership with Ivan Lendl) turned him into the champion many predicted he would become. Heartbreaking as it must have been, Murray’s 2012 Australian Open semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic was the definite sign of things to come. Up until that point, Murray had been routinely dominated in forehand-to-forehand crosscourt exchanges by Djokovic, Federer, and even by Nadal’s crosscourt backhand. That Djokovic semi marked the first time since his brilliant 2010 Australian Open performance against Nadal that Murray used his forehand with authority against one of the game’s “Big 3″ in a Major. The Lendl partnership was immediately paying off.
Looking back at the pre-2012 US Open phase of Murray’s career, you can pinpoint four crucial matches that perfectly capture his development. Often, a player turns in an eye-opening performance (even in defeat) that earns him premature predictions of guaranteed greatness by trigger-happy fans and pundits, only to spectacularly fail to live up to the hype. Murray, on the other hand, is a rare case of a player whose defining matches were corroborated by his career trajectory.
Murray had shown flashes of his future brilliance in a five-set loss to David Nalbandian at Wimbledon in 2005, and a straight-set upset of Roger Federer at the 2006 Cincinnati Masters. However, his real “take notice” moment, at least as far as I’m concerned, was his five-set loss to Rafael Nadal at the 2007 Australian Open. A more fit version of Murray would have more than likely emerged victorious, but the Brit looked noticeably winded in the deciding set. Nevertheless, Murray’s talent was on full display, as he handled Nadal’s spin with crosscourt backhands all day, toyed with his opponent with silky-smooth drop shots, and showed incredible hands at the net. While injury would soon derail his momentum that year, it remains the match which gave us the first glimpse of Murray against a future rival, and one of the sport’s giants on the Grand Slam level.
Eighteen months later, Murray got his shot at redemption, this time producing what was the most sensational tennis of his career to topple Nadal in 4 sets at the 2008 US Open semifinal. Murray had just broken into the Top 10, and cemented his status as a legitimate threat at Majors by eliminating the Spaniard in the midst of the hottest run of his career. The match remains among Murray’s finest hours, as his serve, aggression, and forehand looked near unplayable. Despite a disappointing outing against Federer in the final, Murray would build off that monumental win over Nadal with an impressive fall indoor season, winning his second Masters 1000 event in Madrid (his first was at Cincinnati earlier that summer), thus officially becoming part of the sport’s “Big 4″ (when the term was first coined).
If the two Nadal matches were turning points as far as Murray cementing his status among the sport’s very best is concerned, his aforementioned semifinal with Djokovic at the 2012 Australian Open was the turning point with regards to his eventual Grand Slam triumph. The Lendl partnership was still in its early stages, but the intent was clear. Despite the loss, there was an overwhelming amount of positives for Murray to take. The match saw him combine his variety, defense, and aggression to deliver an absolute classic that would have been even more fondly remembered had it not been for a rough opening set and the subsequent Djokovic/Nadal final.
Murray built off that match to take himself all the way to his first Wimbledon final, where he was once again toppled by his Grand Slam final tormentor, Roger Federer. However, a few weeks later, Murray would gain revenge in one of the greatest moments of his career, and his ultimate pre-Grand Slam win turning point, when he beat Federer in the final of the 2012 Olympics in London. From a tennis perspective, the performance itself may not have been as telling as Murray’s aggressive outing against Djokovic in Melbourne, but it finally gave Murray a satisfaction that rivals winning a Major, and the emotional boost he needed on his way to realizing his dream. It took him mere weeks to do so, as Murray once again used that career exemplifying match against Federer to win the US Open crown by beating Novak Djokovic in five windy sets.
Almost a full year later, Murray revisits the ground that provided him his first taste of Grand Slam glory, and walks in as the Wimbledon champion to boot. There are no talks of last chances, mental obstacles, “first British man since…”, or the need to adopt a more aggressive approach. In fact, there have been no overreactions to his now-customary post-Slam final lulls when he surprisingly loses early in Masters 1000 events. There is only “Andy Murray: US Open and Wimbledon champion.”
You know you’ve made it when the media manage to keep a level head after you lose, and still pencil you in as one of the favorites for a Major, instead of using said defeat as a sure-fire sign of a tennis apocalypse. Only a few players are offered this luxury. Andy Murray, you have officially made it.
Credits: Cover Photo: anonlinegreenworld (Creative Commons License)